An Archetale in the Assembling Terrania Cycle
I wrote this story after a dream:
I am at the seashore helping fleeing gods into small boats that will take them to waiting helicopters. The first god is dark-haired and looks female. She is beautiful. Just then, agents of an organization called SMOKE show up to apprehend the gods, but they have already flown. I suddenly understand that the gods are trying to get home.
The honor of the gods has been– Friedrich Hölderlin
Too long, too long invisible.
She turned heads even in the dark, and she needed to get out fast.
“Here,” I said, clenching a rubber dinghy as she climbed aboard. A retinue clad in rough travel clothes came after. In they went too, managing themselves with surprising poise.
The boat was just big enough for all of them. The sea fussed and foamed this morning but was navigable.
“The helicopter is waiting,” I reminded her as I handed her a paddle. The breeze off the water chilled my stubbly face. “Paddle out beyond the breakers, then head that way”—I pointed to my right—“until you hear the rotors.”
She looked me in the eye, and my insides melted a little.
“Thank you,” she said.
I pushed them seaward as they began to paddle.
They rode a line of gentle breakers and looped gradually toward their fog-hidden rendezvous. I turned away. The black sky was going pale blue. Just enough time to launch one more group…
It’s a strange avocation, what I do. It didn’t used to be necessary.
In the past, the gods stayed in temples, lurked near invocations, haunted ceremonies, lounged within works of fine art. Then Jesus came along and gave them a bright idea: Why not show up in human beings?
What nobody asked, least of all Them, let alone us, was: What if they got stuck there?
Take Aphrodite, last seen paddling toward a waiting helicopter. Exit stage right, with Graces. Fleeing with the wind in her hair to escape her persecutors. Last week I had held a boat for Inanna and her two lions.
No, the gods of old haven’t vanished at all. They peer out at us from billboards and computer screens. They fly the friendly skies, serve us hamburgers, wave magic wands in fantasy films, prance on stage as pop music stars. The bank cashier you just spoke to is Moneta, and Mars wears a football helmet.
The gods look like you and me. Sometimes they are you and me, riding us like unwilling horses.
The nature spirits don’t look like you and me, but they too have incarnated among us. Their names now are Lost Dongle, Sticky Door, Aerial Drone, and Driverless Car. The Penates, the household gods of ancient Rome, are our pets, pet peeves, and programmable pots and pans. Toaster totems and tablet crystal balls. Our ceramic chalices magically clean themselves. Our homes whisper back to us.
Lately, though, the gods have started wandering off the range.
In part, they do this, I believe, as a reaction to eighteen hundred years of demonization by organized religion and four hundred of the same by science and industry (both of which lean heavily on mythic plot lines, by the way). To loosely paraphrase Jung: if the gods can’t shine, they show up as symptoms instead. They get restless and wild.
They become our illnesses, neuroses, and infirmities. They possess us. How confining for a god! Even a sprite deserves better.
But even that was not enough to send them on the run.
Fairly recently, a group of authoritarian rationalists and a group of religious zealots realized they held quite a lot in common, including a hatred of story, myth, subjectivity, and imagination. Backed by wealthy donors, they captured big pieces of the national government and founded SMOKE: Suppressive Materialism and Obtrusive Knowability Enforcement.
Their overriding goal was to turn everyone into a literalist. Whether their “facts” agreed or not—Earth four thousand years old? Four billion?—was secondary: their watchword was Factism. Their idols were Comte and Torquemada. Their edict was: No fantasy allowed.
First, they went after Halloween and Christmas. Then plays and pageants fell to their ideological axes. Novels and fantasy films, science fiction and magical realism, most of world literature, deep psychology not chained to lab results: all off it outlawed, torched, 451’d and gone up in SMOKE.
No more amusement parks, dream guides, horoscopes, or altered states. States became altars. Poets, musicians, fantasists, mystics, dancers, diviners, and visionaries were banished from the republic.
With nowhere else to go, the gods took up residence in human skulls…until the lack of inner space began to drive them mad.
So I try to help relocate them. A discreet service I am happy to provide, for a fee.
I was about to get another dinghy out of my truck and inflate it when a SMOKE team came driving up in a black pickup truck. Three men in black suits got out and approached. They kept well back, right hands hovering near the belt buckle. I imagined them shooting at man-shaped targets every Sunday in an insulated basement.
“ID please?” demanded the tallest. I handed it over as I checked him out. Young, clean-shaven, crew cut, aviator sunglasses, red necktie, flag pin. Typical Antimetaphor Youth graduate. The square shape in his left trouser pocket must be the Calculator’s Catechism. He likely never left home without it.
The credentials identified me as Ray Singh Cain. He didn’t get it. Nobody reads anymore.
“Mr. Cain,” he said straight-faced, “may I ask what you’re doing here?”
“Taking in the view.” I nodded toward the pre-dawn sea. The dim shapes of islands dotted the horizon. “Reminds me a bit of paradise.”
“There seems to be a lot of traffic through paradise. Where does everybody go?”
“Beats me,” I said truthfully. “I’m not their keeper.”
“You seem to be involved in transporting them regularly.”
“You know, in the past, guys like you locked up desperate people trying to get into the country. You put their kids in cages. Now you’re against letting other desperate people get out?”
“How do you know they are leaving the country?”
“I don’t. Where else would they go?”
“Into other, more remote parts of the country, where they wake up after their trip and start telling everybody fanciful tales about magical rides and possession by gods and the sacredness of being. We don’t need that kind of disorder.”
“Oh. Well, that’s nothing to me. If I happen to see them once here, I never do again.” Except in my dreams, where they often reappear to thank me. I’ve never been sure for what.
One of the agents held a small black tube pointed at me. He looked up and nodded to the one talking to me. Yes, he’s telling the truth. Which made me small fry not worth apprehending.
Watching the factists file into their freshly washed car, I thought: Who cares? Tomorrow I’ll be in Hong Kong at the track, or in Moscow black-marketing vodka, or in Dublin tipping back a Guinness.
That was the handy thing for around-the-edges guys like me about the nation-state facade preserved by the multinationals: jurisdicktion. Factists, being dicks, always respected it. For them, borders were always more real than bridges.
With the agents gone, I took a breakfast break, then went to my truck and pulled out another dinghy to inflate.
As I worked on it, a wiry fellow in a gray sweater, jeans, and Army jacket walked up. He carried a knapsack on his back with a folded walking stick attached. His eyes darted around: at the sea, at the boat, at me, behind him, above…
“Good morning,” I said. The sun was rising. “Anyone else, or just you?”
“Just me. But I may be back to collect friends another time.”
He winked a green eye as he shook my hand. I watched the eye take me in: stocky, rumpled, black hair, scar above my right blue-gray eye. His confiding manner reminded me of hustlers in the work camp always running some game or other.
“SMOKE was just here, but it blew away.”
“I know,” he said. “They placed a drone overhead too.”
“Oh?” I glanced up but detected no wink of metal or glass.
“Yes. But a condor defecated on it and now it can’t see.”
I chuckled as he helped me drag the boat to water’s edge. I was thinking about strange trips and fanciful tales.
“Can I ask you something?”
“Sounds like you already have. Want to ask me something else?”
I nodded. “How do all of you…liberate yourselves from your human hosts?”
“Our hope is that by getting enough of them together, those hosting us will recognize that as bearers of divinity, they are pretty small containers. We need a lot more room.”
“Won’t it just make them feel special, part of a sacred membership? Won’t they hang onto you even harder?”
“What would you do if you realized that an impatient god fuels your compulsions, amplifies your anxieties, sends you nightmares, electrocutes your relationships? And that all these are ten times worse than they have to be? That your life isn’t really yours, but ours?”
“I’d look for the nearest shiny jar for you to curl up in. The hell with being special.”
“Just so. But a jar wouldn’t suffice. Let me show you something.”
He came around to my side of the dinghy and gestured downward.
“What do you see there?”
“Sea foam on sand?”
“Aphrodite. Don’t you recognize her? You gave her and her Graces a lift not two hours ago.”
A beam of early sunlight made radiant the retreating froth. It ran down the beach like a fugitive spirit and rejoined the restless waters.
“She’s right here now?”
“My beamish boy, she has returned to everywhere the sea foam glitters; everywhere things merge and melt. She is the glue that holds matter together; the fertility of plants; the mating of animals; the lovely curves of spacetime and its gravitational attraction. Behold Aphrodite, queen of the cosmos. Also known as Inanna, Ishtar, Enya, Freya, Lakshmi…”
Hmmm. “Indra came through the other day. Where did he go?”
“Up where the drones and birds hang out. Indra is the higher view of things: the treetop view, the mountaintop view, the view from orbit. You could also call him Jupiter, Zeus, Ukko, Nayame, Olorun…”
“Osiris came through before him. Busy week for refugee gods,” I noted.
“Plant a seed. It’s him, as is its power to grow. Attis, Adonis, Dumuzi, Plutus, Dionysus…”
I shook my head and picked up a paddle. “Maybe I need more coffee.”
“Our ‘jar’ is the world, nature, the cosmos,” he said with smiling condescension. “We’re on a journey, you see. You handy bipedal mortals are, shall we say, a way station, a cab stand, a pit stop, on our trip back home, to the Infraworld of potentiality hidden within the apparent world. Potential to actual to actualized and sweet home again. Full circle.”
“You’re welcome. So now a bewildered woman somewhere who rode a boat this morning and just got off a helicopter feels used and abandoned? Are all my former passengers stumbling around mumbling profundities?”
“We leave a pearl of who we are in you before we depart for greener pastures. Think of it as a tip for the maid, or an inner fortune cookie. Maybe even a blessing.”
I wondered what would happen to the woman now freed from hosting the wild archetypal force of Aphrodite. Certainly, her love life would change.
“You know, it was quite a leap forward for you to recognize yourselves as hosts for us, if temporary ones. Now you see the bigger picture: we visit you, but in actuality you’re inside of us.”
A gull cried overhead. I looked around and thought about them, the gods, in everything, animating everything: the sea, the soil, the birds, the air, the shadows, the rising sunlight…The world might feel less lonely once I got used to the idea.
The world. How little it had mattered to the majority of us forever on our way to elsewhere; and yet it birthed and fed and supported us until we returned to it at our little life’s end.
Distracted, we sought for the divine over here or up there, or, more recently, inside us. But here it was all around us too, waiting for our recognition.
Maybe I would stop and take in more. Maybe even love it some.
Meanwhile. I gestured and he stepped aboard the dinghy. No sign of the boys in black. Maybe they’d gone back to their basement.
“How did you get into this gig?” he asked conversationally. Hustlers love to talk.
“Aphrodite showed up one day, said she had a rich friend. And she was sweet.”
“Not that sweet.”
“Time will tell.” He winked again.
“Who am I to her? A mere mortal. A ferryman.”
“Maybe there’s a god in you.”
“I hope not.”
“Ah, but I know your real name—”
“And I know yours, old trickster.”
“Your name is—”
“Leave it. Even the seagulls are wired these days. Call me Cain, call me Ishmael, but not—that.”
He nodded as I took a firm grip on the side of the boat and walked it out into the sea, preparing to propel it forth.
“Time to go,” I said. “Stand by to paddle.”
“Your speech exhibits enviable concision,” he remarked as he shifted himself into position. “I bet you could sum up your philosophy of life in one sentence.”
“Move around, read a lot, brush your teeth, and don’t kill people.” I held the dinghy through a small swell.
He laughed. “Admirably stated. I especially like the mobility part.”
“I’m not sure I like you, though.”
“Your bank account likes me. I’m your benefactor.”
The money that just appeared every week. “I guess I should thank you.”
“You are thanking me.”
“Bon voyage.” I pushed hard, glad to be free of all the talk even though I had asked for some of it. Too early in the morning. The dinghy bobbed outward.
“You’re more than you think you are!” he called out as he paddled. “What do you really want?” A lingering arm of mist hid the boat as it floated away.
I shrugged and waded ashore, looking around for the thermos. What a gorgeous sunrise, though.
See also “The Long Adventure Begins.”